Siamese Paperback – Jan 1 2010
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Siamese is a mini-masterpiece of post-Beckett and post-Bernhard prose, a domestic grand guignol that oozes from the page with its obsession with body parts, bodily fluids, and human emissions. --Steve Finbow
About the Author
Stig Saeterbakken (1966 2012) was one of Norway s most acclaimed contemporary writers. His novels include Through the Night and Siamese (also published by Dalkey Archive).
Stokes Schwartz's translation work includes technical, historical, and literary pieces. He studied Scandinavian languages and literature-with a concentration in Norwegian-at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Minnesota, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The book cover implies the introduction of the building superintendent who embroils the couple "in a new and vicious struggle for power." This is misleading. There is little drama here - the story is narrated by Edwin and Erna in alternating chapters who share their thoughts with us about their current hopeless existence - both tied in a form of Gordian Knot. Both have settled into a routine -- Edwin dependent on Erna - and Erna seemingly chained to Edwin and his slide towards a certain ending - bound together in a dismal and desperate existence.
Edwin is a character - not all that likable or charming but one that keeps you fully engaged. He has dark humor spewing out of his mouth and mind as he stews in his hopelessness - drowning himself in a sea of complaints. Death - the discussion of it - the pending gloom and doom of it - is pervasive. The plot line here rides a plow horse to a slow painful ending.
The book is like rubbernecking on the freeway. You feel and know that it is bad. It is disturbing. Yet you find yourself unable to turn away. It is so dark, offers so little hope, so few memories of anything good in Edwin and Erna's lives - and the book ends on the same note. I had hoped to find a glimmer of light (Disney like perhaps) as I approached the end of this 164 page novella - yet no enlightenment surfaced - just the portrayal of fury and frustration over the conditions right until the turn of the last page. This is not a feel good book, but it is exceptionally well written and alternatively very funny, sad and disturbing. I'm certain I'll remember this book for some time.
Some of my favorite passages:
"The only thing left to do is keep my mind active. Until it's all over. If things come to a dead stop there, like they have everywhere else, then I'm finished. But it's a nightmare, keeping my thoughts straight."
"I'm no thinker, but I think all the time. It's the only thing I can't stop doing. Completely natural, but unbearable nevertheless. Every thought raises another, and they all resemble one another, so that each child bears the mark of its forefathers."
Siamese examines the inner thoughts and outer actions of this strange pair, in the most intimate of ways. Elna is so involved in Edwin's death (as it is he is more dead than alive) that she lacks the most basic grasp of common sense, unless it comes to deceiving Edwin. Edwin glories in his demise, cataloguing each symptom and detail with relish. It's almost as if his decay proves that he existed in the first place, because in his constant reminiscing he often tries to analyze if he really did live. His thoughts are random, vulgar, and filled with hate. He asks himself: "Where is this road heading? What will become of everything? Will the future be like what's already going on in my head? No, the world's still out there. Nothing ever goes away, it just accumulates. Especially for me, who can't see worth a damn, yes, I just sit here with a head full of stupid pictures..."
It's clear that even in younger days, Edwin was far from kindly. He treated the patients in the rest home with distant efficiency but secretly thought they should be suffocated in their beds. He loses his job just as his sanity lapses: he attacks a nurse. From then on his busy career fades into the small, smelly room where he ruminates about prior patients and coworkers and pleads for Death to arrive soon to release him from his thoughts:
"Take it all, I mean it, don't leave so much as a bedroom slipper behind, annihilate me, smash me into kindling, into dust, then vacuum me up, leave no evidence, I don't want to be remembered for anything...I long for you to come and beat my thoughts into submission...they've plagued me long enough, do nothing but torment me,...all they can think about, all they remember, is themselves...But I don't want to think about them anymore...letting them have their way with me is a worse defeat than death."
Elna, for her part, remains distant from Edwin, as his still breathing corpse is no company and company is what she craves. A broken light bulb, necessitating a visit from the building's young superintendent, finally gives Elna a chance. And the malevolent force that enters their miserable life changes everything.
Siamese is not a mystery novel, but at times I had to remind myself to breathe as the suspense built. A character study of two deeply connected but polarized individuals, it is fascinating to read and see how their actions push each other into reactions that are both ugly and frightening. It's also terribly frightening: the helplessness and lack of contact along with the certainty of impending death gave me chills.
The novel was originally written in Norwegian and was translated by Stokes Schwartz.
And what does he "appear to intend"? I think it is plainly just death, not newspaper or cinema style of death with lots of panache and good-looking people, but the death that accompanies old age, especially death alone.
This couple has no children and apparently no relatives, at least relatives that care. An easily missed element here is that Edna is deaf as a doornail. And so there is a blind person and a deaf person living together. If you have any experience with caring for the infirm, you know it is a daunting task. Neither of these is up to such a task, and yet they live on their own, not in a care facility. No one cares about them and they have no advocate, which is so important in old age.
One of the first signs of death is a loss of appetite; food no longer has an appealing taste. After all, that is the reason we eat, it tastes good. When you are dieing, it stops tasting good. That is what happens to Edwin. And Edna keeps on bringing plates of food for him and then retrieves them untouched. But no thought occurs to her about this peculiar event. Edna thinks he might be dead, but takes no action.
Edwin and Edna (notice the similar names) are Siamese twins who cannot get away from each other. They have never owned a camera in their lives. I don't think the word child is ever mentioned in the book nor what Edna may have done with herself all those years.
This is a hell on earth, with the worm devouring itself. These two people are inseparably bound together and eventually turn back into soil. The book is very scary and is what the author intends. It is very European as it should be.